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How to Get Rid of Moths

Read this guide to learn how to tackle moth infestations and prevent them from happening in the first place.

Cedar discs added to hangers to deter moths iStock

Without even noticing their presence, moths can enter your home, take up residence, and destroy your things—from the cashmere and wool sweaters in your closet to the cake flour and cereal in your pantry.

If the hole-y havoc moths can wreak sounds familiar, now’s the time to kick these uninvited houseguests to the curb. Here’s how to identify and eliminate moth problems and prevent moths from coming back again.

What Exactly is a Moth?

Moths are members of the same winged insect order (or group) as butterflies, called Lepidoptera. But unlike butterflies, moths are nocturnal, and their colors and patterns are generally dull. Of the nearly 160,000 moth species, two are known to damage your clothes and upholstery: the casemaking clothes moth and the webbing clothes moth. Moth holes are actually the work of moth larvae—tiny caterpillars that feed on natural fibers such as wool, cashmere, silk, and cotton, and have a penchant for dirty clothes and still, dark places.

Other moth species produce larvae known to feed in the pantry—on chocolate, dried beans, rice, pet food, cereal, flour, grains, and other pantry goods. The most common are the Indian meal moth and the Mediterranean flour moth.

How Do I Know If I Have a Moth Problem?

If you see a moth flying in your house, you may already have a moth problem. But most moths found in the home, particularly those larger than a centimeter, feed on plants, not clothing, and they likely entered your house by accident. But if you see a staple-sized moth fly out of the cupboard when you put the sugar away, then it’s time to check your flour container for signs (sticky, clumped-up particles, for one). Or, if you discover a small moth in your clothes closet, especially one that’s gray or beige and under a centimeter in size, you’ll want to check your sweater collection. Here are the most obvious signs of a moth infestation:

Pantry moths

  • Webs or larvae in your dry goods; secretions that make grains stick together
  • Casings or cocoons in the corners or on the ceiling of the cupboards

Clothing moths

  • Irregularly-shaped holes or furrows in your clothing
  • Shedding of fur items
  • A web-like, sticky substance on your clothes

Are There Health Risks to Moths in the House?

Some moth larvae can, upon contact, cause a rash in humans known as caterpillar dermatitis. Its symptoms include itching, redness, and swelling. In addition, some larval and adult moths produce glycoproteins that cause other allergic reactions when inhaled. Most people, however, never exhibit any reaction to moths in the home.

How Do I Prevent a Moth Infestation?

Prevention is the key to saving your clothing and pantry goods. There are several ways to stop moths from taking up residence in your home.

  • Don’t keep dirty clothes in the closet or drawers. Moths prefer munching on natural fibers, but they also go for food stains, perspiration, and other keratin-containing residues on natural and synthetic fibers.
  • Since moths don’t like light or movement, leave your closet door ajar, open your drawers regularly, and purposely move items around.
  • Store clothing in areas free of humidity, as moths are drawn to humid places.
  • Only keep enough dry goods suitable for quick use; the longer products sit, the more susceptible they are to moth infestation. (If storing large quantities, be sure to do so in airtight containers made of glass or hard plastic.)
  • Remove taxidermized animals from the home, or at least vacuum them regularly.

How Do I Get Rid of Moths?

That depends on the type of moth. Eliminating pantry moths from your home requires a different strategy than eliminating closet moths.

Ways to get rid of moths in the pantry

  • Throw out all infested food and dispose of or transfer uninfested food into airtight hard plastic or glass containers. (If eggs were laid in these goods, the airtight receptacles will contain them and prevent an infestation.)
  • Remove all pantry contents
  • Vacuum the entire pantry, then discard the vacuum bag outside.
  • Thoroughly scrub the pantry with soap and water, paying extra attention to corners, seams, and ceilings, where cocoons may be found (and removed).
  • Avoid the use of pesticides in areas that contain food.

Ways to get rid of moths in the closet

  • Throw out any clothes with apparent signs of damage or infestation.
  • Dry clean or wash other clothes in hot water and tumble dry on high heat. (Make sure to check the labels first).
  • Vacuum the entire area, then discard the vacuum bag outside.
  • Store out-of-season clothing in airtight boxes or vacuum-sealed bags.
  • Consider using pheromone traps to capture the male moths and break the breeding cycle.
  • Cedar, lavender, and other natural moth deterrents haven’t been proven to work, and mothballs are toxic pesticides that are effective on moths but harmful to people and pets.

Remember, moths are notorious stowaways. So put up the “No Vacancy” sign by practicing the preventative measures outlined here.